Flash Boys’ premise – and its central exposé – is really quite simple. A bunch of stock traders on Wall Street have been making tons of money with computer-aided trades that exploit and run ahead of the rest of the market. This advantage comes thanks to some special fiber optic cable that connect their computers and give them a “first look” advantage. The practice, not currently illegal, may amount to a kind of insider trading that results in a “rigged market.” The beneficiaries – principally the “high-frequency traders”at the center of the process – make millions with a milliseconds heads-up based on who is buying what, how much, and at what price. All of this, of course, is programmed into the whirring computers, as the money flows directly into the traders’ accounts, millisecond-by-millisecond. While the practice of high-frequency trading – or HFT as insiders call it – varies depending on firm and location, the traders’ super- fast computers are able to post and cancel orders at astonishing rates, even millionths of a second, and in the process, capture price discrepancies on more than 50 public and private trading exchanges that make up the American stock market. Everyone who owns equities is victimized by the practice, Lewis believes. The stock exchanges, in his view, have become “unfair places” for average investors – and that includes average investors whose pension funds and IRAs are handled by institutional investors.
As Lewis’s book hit the streets in early April 2014, it created a bit of pandemonium, not only among the high-frequency traders, but also in the financial press and throughout the business media. Lewis and his publisher had kicked things off with an appearance by Lewis on the popular CBS-TV show, 60 Minutes, Sunday, March 30, 2014. During the interview, Steve Kroft and Lewis moved right to the heart of the issue:
Kroft: What’s the headline here?
Lewis: The stock market’s rigged. The United States stock market, the most iconic market in global capitalism, is rigged.
Kroft: By whom?
Lewis: By a combination of the stock exchanges, the big Wall Street banks, and high frequency traders. . .
Lewis: …The insiders are able to move faster than you, they’re able to see your order, and play it against other orders in ways that you don’t understand. They’re able to front-run your order.
Kroft: What do you mean, front run?
Lewis: …It means they’re able to identify your desire to buy shares of Microsoft, and buy them in front of you, and sell them back to you at a higher price. It all happens in infinitesimally small periods of time. The speed advantage that the faster traders have is milliseconds; some of it is fractions of milliseconds. But it’s enough for them to identify what you’re gonna do, and do it before you do it, and do it at your expense.
Kroft: So it drives the price up.
Lewis: So it drives the price up, and in turn, you pay a higher price.But Flash Boys is not only about the nefarious “flash traders” skimming off the market volume of all those individual and institutional investors who are buying and selling shares. It is also about market repair and honest “flash boys” who are trying to build a very fast but also very fair stock exchange.
These are the flash boys who have learned what’s really going on. They are the heroes in Lewis’s story; the ones causing the “Wall Street revolt” in Flash Boys’ subtitle.
Among them is a Canadian trader named Brad Katsuyama. He’s the guy who educated Lewis on the whole business of HFT skimming to begin with. Katsuyama, in Lewis’ view, is one of the few people alive who actually understands how the stock market works.Katsuyama, in turn, had help from others, including an Irish telecom expert named Ronan Ryan, who knew how the stock market is wired together – and most importantly – the details about high-speed fiber optic networks that serviced certain trading centers, which cables connected which data centers, and how quickly.
“Of course you’re arriving there at different time intervals,” Ryan revealed to Katsuyama. And that’s when the “a ha” light bulb clicked on for Katsuyama – why the stock orders that he and other traders were trying to fill were always vanishing or bumping up in price. Ryan is also one of the “flash heroes” in Lewis’ story. To help remedy the unfairness Katsuyama founded IEX, the Investor’s Exchange, and he and his employees — now including Ronan Ryan — are the hopeful part of Lewis’s book.Lewis, meanwhile, is shining his light on some very powerful players and affiliated institutions. High-frequency traders account for about half of share volume in the U.S. stock market. And the exchanges themselves rely on these trades for profits as well as liquidity. This powerful new electronic marketplace has all but eliminated the old system of human floor traders. In fact, Lewis has talked about the official market as a “stale market” and also a “slow market” vs. a “fast market.” To show how lucrative the tactics are in the new flash market, Lewis writes of a technology firm that spent $300 million to build a [fiber optic] line that would shave three milliseconds off the time it takes to communicate between New Jersey and Chicago. This firm then leased access to the line to securities companies for $10 million each. In his book Lewis writes of “haves and have nots” based on trading speeds and who can afford what: “The haves paid for nanoseconds; the have-nots had no idea that nanoseconds had value.”
Following the 60 Minutes story on March 30, 2014, the web and blogosphere lit up with Michael Lewis and Flash Boys stories. Lewis was quickly booked on other TV talk shows. He did interviews on The Today Show, The Charlie Rose Show, The PBS Newshour, Daily Show with Jon Stewart, and others. He also appeared on business talk shows including CNBC and Bloomberg Television.
On the April 1st, 2014 CNBC show, Power Lunch – a live business and stock market news show – the conversation became quite heated as CNBC’s Sue Herera and Bob Pisani interviewed Brad Katsuyama and William O’Brien, president of BATS Global Markets.
On the show, Katsuyama and Lewis were criticized by O’Brien for their assertions that the market was unfair to ordinary investors: “Shame on both of you for falsely accusing literally thousands of people and possibly scaring millions of investors in an effort to promote a business model,” meaning Katsuyama’s IEX exchange. O’Brien also pressed Katsuyama on his claims in Lewis’ book that the market was rigged.
“I believe the markets are rigged,” Katsuyama said in response to O’Brien, “and I also think you’re part of the rigging.” Lewis later joined the CNBC debate and more accusations flew from both sides, as a shouting match ensued over the book’s indictment of HFT. CNBC later reported that the 20-minute debate had stopped activity on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange as traders watched the debate. The “twitterverse” also fired up with reaction to the show.That Katsuyama, Lewis, and Flash Boys received a heated response from the business community is not surprising given the core of what is being exposed – along with the interrelated involvements of banking and the exchanges. High-frequency traders themselves – through an advocacy group, Modern Markets Initiative, “went on a tweeting rampage” after the Lewis story broke, according to once source, arguing that HFT actually makes markets more fair. The financial press, too – right and left – did a bit of piling on as well. Charles Gasparino, the Fox Business Network’s senior correspondent, in a New York Post opinion piece, called the book Lewis’ “high frequency bull.” Yet some in the business community welcomed it. Clive Williams, head of global trading at T. Rowe Price, told the New York Times he was “pleased to see Michael Lewis call further attention” to high-frequency trading On Tuesday, April 1st, 2014, the day Flash Boys went on sale, it rose to No. 1 on Amazon.com. Lewis, meanwhile, continued making the media rounds through the week following his book’s release and into the weekend, appearing on National Public Radio’s “Fresh Air” program; C-SPAN’s Book TV program, where he took calls from viewers about his book on Saturday morning. The next day he also appeared on the NBC’s Sunday morning news show, Meet The Press. Also on Sunday, The New York Times Magazine made the book its cover story, running a photo of Brad Katsuyama on the cover with the tagline: “Meet Brad: He’s a humble Canadian stock trader who happened to figure out exactly how the stock market was rigged. Now, Wall Street may never be the same.”
Within a few days of Flash Boys’ release, the Washington Post and the New York Times were reporting that the Justice Department, the Securities and Exchange Commission, and the Commodity Futures Trading Commission were either launching new investigations or had existing probes underway. The FBI, for one, announced it would investigate HFT for possible frontrunning, market manipulation, and insider trading. So, with his latest book, Lewis succeed in bringing fresh attention to stock market technology and a major new issue. As Lev Grossman put it in a short review of Flash Boys for Time magazine. “More than ever, the economic injustices of the world are made possible by the unequal distribution of information. Lewis is doing his part to smooth out those differences.”
But there’s more to Michael Lewis than his recent excursion into the HFT fray. Turns out he’s something of a literary “flash boy” – meant in the best sense of that term – here referring to his copious output as a business and financial writer over the last 25 years or so. During that time Lewis has become one of the nation’s most engaging interpreters of “business culture” in its many forms, facets, impacts, and personalities.
Flash Boy Lewis
Michael Lewis was born in New Orleans, Louisiana in October 1960. His father was a lawyer and his mother a community activist – also a descendant of James Monroe. On his father’s side there is reported “Lewis & Clark” lineage. His grandfather was the first Supreme Court justice in Louisiana. Young Michael attended Isidore Newman prep school in New Orleans, graduated from Princeton in Art History in 1982, worked briefly with New York art dealer Daniel Wildenstein, and then went to the London School of Economics where in 1985 he received an MA in Economics.
At age 24, he went to work at Salomon Brothers, first in New York for training and then to London as a bond salesman. At Salomon he was also schooled in derivatives. But while he was at Salomon in London, he also began testing his writing wings by offering anonymous perspectives from the trading floor. These pieces were published in The Spectator and the Sunday Telegraph, and when Lewis saw traders passing around photocopies of his pieces, he knew this might be something he could do. A few years later, in 1988, he left Salomon to begin a writing career focusing on financial issues. In 1989 he published Liar’s Poker, a book about Wall Street in the go-go 1980s that became a best seller, sending Lewis into the business/financial literary world in a big way.
Since then he has published 14 more books on a range of topics, from Silicon Valley and presidential politics, to baseball, football, and fatherhood. Yet in most of these books there is typically a thread of technology and/or business running through the storyline. In addition to the books, he has also written extensively for newspapers and magazines. He is currently, as of April 2014, a columnist for Bloomberg News and a contributing writer for Vanity Fair. A 2012 piece he did for Vanity Fair on President Obama, gave Lewis direct access to the President – including playing in one of Obama’s pick-up basketball games (photos below in Sources). His articles have also appeared in The New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker, The New Republic, Slate, Sports Illustrated, Foreign Affairs, and Poetry Magazine. He has served as editor and columnist for the British weekly The Spectator. But it has been his best-selling books that have established him as a talented writer with something to say.Lewis’s first breakthrough book was Liar’s Poker, an era-defining work on Wall Street greed. The book is part autobiography and part no-holds-barred exposé. In it, Lewis describes his own experiences as a Salomon Brothers’ bond salesman during the 1980s, where he made millions for the firm during those go-go years. Lewis’s account offers a behind-the-scenes look at what was then going on. Says publisher W.W. Norton – “from the frat-boy camaraderie of the forty-first-floor trading room to the killer instinct that made ambitious young men gamble everything on a high-stakes game of bluffing and deception.” The book’s name is taken from liar’s poker, a high-stakes gambling game popular with the bond traders in the book.
The Sunday Times of London wrote in one review: “If you thought Gordon Gekko of the Wall Street movie was an implausibly corrupt piece of fiction, see how you like the real thing. This rip-the-lid-off account of the bond-dealing brouhaha is the work of a real-life bond salesman… Read all about it: headlong greed, inarticulate obscenity, Animal House horse-play…”
Published in 1989, Liar’s Poker became one of the books that captured Wall Street during that particular “wild west” era of the 1980s when big deals and big money flowed unencumbered by government regulators. Along with Barbarians at the Gate by Bryan Burrough and John Helyar and The Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe, Liar’s Poker became one of “must reads” for understanding Wall Street culture in the 1980s.The late 1980s were a time when Japan was cleaning America’s clock economically; an ascendant global power whose automobile and electronics industries had phenomenal growth. Lewis’s Pacific Rift – a 1990 book on U.S.-Japanese business and cultural differences – arrived just as U.S.-Japanese relations became the topic of the day. First published by Whittle Direct Books in Knoxville, Tennessee, the book used the subtitle, “Adventures in the Fault Zone Between the U.S. and Japan.” W.W. Norton, the house that would become Lewis’s main publisher, later did the book with a new cover and subtitle shown at left. In Pacific Rift, Lewis follows and features two businessmen – an American in Japan and a Japanese in America – to explore each other’s culture to point up why Americans and Japanese don’t understand each other. “Lewis’s take is often comic, but his message is serious,” wrote William J. Holstein of Business Week in one review. “He sees Japan as it is and sums up the challenge: ‘How can our capitalism beat their capitalism?’ By keeping his eyes open and asking the right questions, this newcomer [Lewis] comes up with penetrating insights.” Publisher’s Weekly also said of the book, “There is more tough sinew here than in a stack of more weightier tomes.” Japan’s bubble eventually burst, but Lewis at the time had his hand on the economic pulse of the moment. In October 1991, Lewis published The Money Culture, a collection of his essays and magazine pieces that returned to his favorite Wall Street haunts and the excesses of the 1980s. His stories featured the various business-related personalities and predicaments of that time – Donald Trump, Michael Milken, T. Boone Pickens, the RJR Nabisco takeover, Louis Rukeyser, the Savings & Loan crisis, the Japanese, and other topics.
“There is not much in the way of true revelation here,” observed one reviewer from Library Journal, “but with Lewis’s puckish humor and inimitable writing style, the stories are entertaining and thought-provoking. …[H]e proves that ‘the raw itch for money is still with us as surely as ever . . . and the money on Wall Street is better than elsewhere’.”
One Amazon.com reviewer found the book “consistently funny, insightful, and a good primer on several financial issues that dominated the 1980’s…” Another suggested that chapters such as “Leveraged Rip-Off” and “How Wall Street Took the S&Ls for a Ride” ought to be required reading for undergraduate business majors. Some believe The Money Culture is one of Lewis’s most underrated and least appreciated titles. It was reissued with new cover art in January 2011.In 1996, Lewis took leave of Wall Street and finance for a time and focused instead on politics and the presidential election cycle. His book, titled Trail Fever and published by Knopf in May 1997, chronicled the world of presidential candidates, campaign workers (“rented strangers”), spin doctors, and more, focusing primarily on the Republican Party. Lewis came to the campaign a political neophyte, and that worked to his advantage in making fresh observations – many hilarious, but quite on point.
The full parade of Republican candidates is covered, among them: Pat Buchanan, Phil Gramm, Lamar Alexander, Steve Forbes, and Alan Keyes. John McCain is also covered as is Green Party candidate Ralph Nader. Principal contestants Bob Dole and Bill Clinton are included as well, but don’t get the ink the others do. Dole is seen “as a man who set out to prove he would never be president” and Clinton described by some as “the big snow goose.”
Once Lewis discovers that the major candidates all practice risk avoidance in their public speeches and really don’t have much to say, he turns more of his attention to the minority candidates. Chief among these is the least known candidate of all, successful businessman Morry Taylor, CEO of Titan International, a tire and wheel manufacturer. Nicknamed “the Grizz” for his bear-like gruffness, Taylor ran in all the primaries but gathered about 1 percent of the vote. Still, Lewis found that Taylor and the other minority candidates often had more to say.“Hilarious, genuinely funny, and insightful,” said the Wall Street Journal of Trail Fever — “the work of a truly gifted writer.” Several reviewers at Amazon.com also gave the book high marks, citing it as some of Lewis’s best writing, calling it even poignant at turns.
When the book came out in paperback, Lewis renamed it Losers, and publisher W.W. Norton added new cover art, as shown at right. Norton’s synopsis on the back cover of that edition notes in part:
“…As he follows the men who aspire to the Oval Office, Lewis discovered an absurd mix of bravery and backpedalling, heroic possibility and mealy-mouthed sound bytes, and a process so ridiculous and unsavory that it leaves him wondering if everyone involved – from the journalists to the candidates to the people who voted – isn’t ultimately a loser… Losers is a wickedly funny, unflinching look at how America really goes about choosing a president.”
“It isn’t anything like traditional political journalism,” notes another reviewer. Yet Lewis’s well-turned prose make the story lively and engaging. The book also serves as something of an American time capsule for 1996.
After his excursion into presidential politics, Lewis turned to Silicon Valley and high-tech entrepreneurs for his next book. In October 1999, he published The New New Thing: A Silicon Valley Story – capturing a bit of the tech mania before the bubble burst. In this book, Lewis tells his story through Jim Clark, founder of three billion-dollar high-tech companies – Silicon Graphics, Netscape, Healtheon. One reviewer at Wired magazine noted: “Michael Lewis takes readers inside the now-familiar world of Silicon Valley excess, the frantic deal making, the absurdly hyped expectations, the phenomenal wealth….”
In the book, Lewis gives readers the inside story of the battle between Netscape and Microsoft, and also shows Clark trying to persuade some investment bankers on the worth of Healtheon. And as he goes about his story-telling, Lewis maps out the changing future of business and markets, showing how the new high-tech guys are forcing a reassessment of traditional Wall Street business models. In the book, Jim Clark is also revealed to be the creator of Hyperion, the world’s largest single-mast sailboat, a machine more complex than a 747. Clark claims he will be able to sail it via computer from his desk in San Francisco, perhaps the basis of another new company.Continuing in the high-tech vein, Lewis published Next: The Future Just Happened, in July 2001, a book about the then emerging power of the internet. A year earlier, the stock market had its high-tech meltdown, with internet stocks in particular taking a major drubbing, leading some to believe the internet was just another passing technology. Lewis’s book, however, helped dispel that notion, by serving up some examples of the internet’s “power-toppling” abilities. Lewis profiles three teenagers empowered by the net: Jonathan Lebed, a 15-year-old New Jersey high school student who made headlines when he netted $800,000 as a day trader; Markus Arnold, the 15-year-old son of immigrants from Belize who became a top-ranked legal expert on AskMe.com dispensing lawyer-level advice; and Daniel Sheldon, a 14-year-old Brit who helped propel the music file-sharing movement.
These stories help Lewis present his book’s main point: that established power centers and professions – be they lawyers, the stock market, or the music industry —are no longer the presumptive ruling kings or set centers of business. Power and prestige are up for grabs in the new world of the internet; the technology is revolutionary, and is changing the way people live and work. Lewis argues this rapidly evolving technology will upend the power structure of society; no entrenched interest or established profession is safe. The amateur and/or individual can be king. The old maxim “information is power” is given new meaning and new reach, as the internet is wielded by new participants. In his internet travels, Lewis also finds that internet democratization typically leads to some form of commercialization, and so should be embraced by business, which at the time was skeptical of the technology. Business Week noted: “His book is a wake-up call at a time when many believe the net was a flash in the pan.” A BBC television spin-off was produced by way of this book, titled “The Future Just Happened,” which was hosted and narrated by Lewis.In 2003, Lewis moved on to some new territory publishing a book on professional baseball. Yet this wasn’t a typical sports book. Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game, is a book about the power of statistics in baseball, and namely, a new kind of statistics called “sabermetrics” developed in the 1990s. The term was coined by baseball writer and statistician Bill James – “saber” from the Society for American Baseball Research, plus “metrics” for measures. Sabermetrics brought a whole new array of measures, challenging conventional wisdom about, and reliance upon, traditional baseball statistics. Sabermetrics finds, for example, that on-base percentage is a better measure than batting average. Or as David Kripen in one San Francisco Chronicle review of Moneyball put it:
“[E]verything you know about baseball is wrong. Sacrifice bunts? Waste of an out. Stolen bases? Not worth the risk of making an out. Pitching? Overrated. Fielding? Overrated. What’s underrated, according to Lewis and his central figure, Oakland A’s General Manager Billy Beane, is ‘the ability to control the strike zone.’ This means, in short, swing only at pitches one can hit well…”
In Moneyball, Lewis focuses on how Billy Beane uses sabermetrics to build a winning team and business. Using the new approach, Beane’s Athletics improve their baseball performance and also bring new undervalued players to the team. The A’s couldn’t afford to sign high school standouts or free agents seeking big paydays, so they went after college players and overlooked has-beens that had hidden statistical value.‘Moneyball’ soon became shorthand for data-driven innovation in any field. In fact, using this approach, the 2002 Oakland Athletics, with a lowly $41 million payroll for player salaries, became competitive with larger market teams such as the New York Yankees, who spent over $125 million in payroll that same season. Beane’s new statistical approach ends up taking the A’s to the playoffs in 2002 and 2003. According to New York Magazine: “The book, which sold over a million copies, changed the way baseball was played, made ‘Moneyball’ a shorthand term for data-driven innovation in any field, and turned Beane himself into a savant legend well outside of baseball circles.” The book would also help propel Lewis to a new level of celebrity as a hit Hollywood film would be produced based on the book starring Brad Pitt as Billy Beane. Yet the film had some screenplay and production snags and would not appear until 2011. More on the film and Lewis’s books in Hollywood a bit later.Coincidentally, another baseball book from Lewis came out in 2005 – a short book about his high school baseball coach, Billy Fitzgerald, coach “Fitz.” The book – titled, Coach: Lessons on the Game of Life – grew out of a March 2004 New York Times Magazine piece Lewis had published when he learned that some parents wanted to throw out his old coach for his tough-love manner. Other alumni were leading an effort to remodel the old school gym and have it named after Fitz. So Lewis waded in with an ode to his old coach based on his own experiences playing baseball for him as a teenager when Lewis attended Isidore Newman prep school in New Orleans. Lewis at the time, wasn’t exactly a model student-athlete, describing himself as “racking up C-minuses, picking fights with teachers, and thinking up new ways to waste my time.” But Coach Fitz, who had been critical and demanding of the young Lewis, turned to him at a crucial moment. Lewis, one of the team’s pitchers, was called upon for a key game, given the ball by Coach Fitz, thereby conveying great confidence in Lewis’s ability. Lewis rose to the occasion in the game and the confidence he won as a result soon spread to his classroom work and beyond. But Coach Fitz could also be intimidating at times, leveling harsh critiques and stinging judgements, which is why some parents wanted to show him the door. But as Lewis would write on behalf of his coach, Fitz did not sugarcoat; he taught perseverance and how to fight through adversity. His message wasn’t simply about winning, but rather, lessons on how self-respect is earned by hard knocks, discipline, failures and successes. These were lessons that served Lewis well, and by raising them in his story, he believed they might work for others as well. Lewis’s next book, The Blind Side, emerged in something of a round about way. Lewis was then working on his story about coach Fitz while visiting long-time friend Sean Tuohy, also a former high school classmate and baseball catcher under coach Fitz at the Isidore Newman school. Lewis and Touhy were comparing notes about Fitz and other things. Touhy by then was married with two high school age kids living in a comfortable home in Memphis, Tennessee. During the visit, Lewis noticed Sean’s two kids coming in and out of the house with a very large, six-foot-four, 350- pound black kid, prompting Lewis to ask about the kid. He soon discovered that Sean’s wife, Leigh Anne Touhy, had discovered the giant kid to be homeless and took him in, and also helped him in school and in playing high school football. That’s when the seeds for The Blind Side were planted, a book that would include not only the story of the Touhy’s relationship with the young gentle giant, Michael Oher, but also would include a Lewis exploration of the evolution and importance of professional football’s left tackle offensive line position (then the second-highest paid position on most teams, which further peaked Lewis’s interest) – a position Michael Oher was destined to play in later years at the University of Mississippi and at the professional level.
As the story is told by Lewis, and described by publisher W.W. Norton: “…Michael Oher is one of thirteen children by a mother addicted to crack; he does not know his real name, his father, his birthday, or how to read or write. He takes up football, and school, after a rich, white, Evangelical family plucks him from the streets….” The book follows Micheal Oher through his years at Briarcrest Christian School, his adoption by Sean and Leigh Anne Tuohy, and on to his position as one of the most highly sought prospects in college football. The book’s title “blind side” has multiple meanings – but refers to a specific term of art in football” – the left tackle position protects the “blind side” of a right-handed quarterback who typically does not see defenders coming at him from that left side, and thus is “blind-sided” when tackled or sacked from that direction. Yet “blind side” in this story can also refer to racial blindness of the Touhys or the “blindness” of society in not seeing its homeless people.The Blind Side was published in September 2006. With the book’s release, Lewis also published that month, on Sunday September 26th “The Ballad of Big Mike” in The New York Times Magazine. However, The Blind Side did not take off on the best-sellers list. Hollywood would change that a few years later. But when the book first came out, it did not do well. As Lewis explained to Emma Brockes at The Guardian newspaper in April 2014: “The problem is that people who like football do not read. And if they read, they don’t want an emotional chick flick buried in their book. It was not a good business idea.” Still, the book was generally well received by reviewers. “The Blind Side works on three levels,” wrote Wes Lukowsky of Booklist. “First as a shrewd analysis of the NFL; second, as an exposé of the insanity of big-time college football recruiting; and, third, as a moving portrait of the positive effect that love, family, and education can have in reversing the path of a life that was destined to be lived unhappily and, most likely, end badly.” Washington Post, columnist George Will, writing in the New York Times Book Review, credited Lewis with “advancing a new genre of journalism.” Sandra Bullock would star as Leigh Anne Tuohy in the movie adaptation of The Blind Side, but the film would not appear until late 2009. More on the film later (see sidebar below).
In the meantime, Lewis published three more books, The Real Price of Everything: Rediscovering the Six Classics of Economics in January 2008; Home Game: An Accidental Guide to Fatherhood in May 2009; and Panic: The Story of Modern Financial Insanity, November 2009. In Real Price, Lewis gathered together the classic economic works of Adam Smith, Thomas Malthus, David Ricardo, Thorstein Veblen and John Maynard Keynes – along with his own editorial commentary on these works. The book serves as a weighty reference (1,472 pages) for any student of economics who may want to understand the market forces and government policies that have shaped the modern world. Home Game, adapted from a series of essays Lewis wrote for Slate magazine, attempts to capture the triumphs, failures, humor, frustration and exhilaration of being a new father during the first year of each of his three children’s lives. “It’s an engaging journal that selectively details how Dad grew up as well….,” said Kirkus Reviews. “His failings amuse . . . and he captures serious moments with a warmth that shows he’s a pretty good dad after all,”wrote the Los Angeles Times. And Panic is about the most important and severe upheavals in past financial history, which Lewis wrote, in an effort “to recreate the more recent financial panics, in an attempt to show how financial markets now operate.”
“The Hollywood Effect”
Sandra Bullock starred in the lead role as Leigh Anne Tuohy. Quinton Aaron played Michael Oher, Tim McGraw appeared as Sean Tuohy, and Kathy Bates played Miss Sue. The film was well received by critics, who praised Bullock’s performance as Leigh Anne Tuohy. Bullock went on to win three “best actress” awards for the role – an Oscar, a Golden Globe, and Screen Actors Guild award. The film also received an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture.
The Blind Side was a box-office success, grossing over $300 million. As the film was running, book publisher W.W. Norton put out a tie-in paperback version of the book shown at right, using the film poster as the book’s cover. That version of the book became a million seller.
The Blind Side film ended its domestic theater run on June 4, 2010, nearly seven months after it opened. In addition, as of July 2013, more than 8.4 million DVD copies of the film have been sold, bringing another $107 million to the film’s total gross.But The Blind Side almost didn’t make it to film. It was first bought by Fox Studios with Julia Roberts in mind to play Tuohy, but when Roberts turned down the role, Fox lost interest. The script then floundered for a time with no takers.
According to Michael Lewis, “The only reason The Blind Side got made was because Fred Smith, who runs Federal Express, lives around the corner from the Tuohy family and has a son who dates Tuohy’s daughter, and he said, ‘Man, that’s a good story. I’ll make it.’ And he paid for it to be made.”The next Michael Lewis book to become a film was Moneyball, released late September 2011. This film, however, had something of rocky road in getting to an acceptable script, and remained in production for number of years. Columbia Pictures bought the rights to Lewis’s book in 2004, but filming on the final version didn’t begin until 2010. Michael Lewis, in fact, thought there was no way that Moneyball could be made into a film. Given its statistical focus, he thought it was too complicated for the big screen, with too many numbers. Yet one person who became a believer in the film version was Brad Pitt, who also played the lead character, Oakland A’s general manager, Billy Beane. Other key cast members were Jonah Hill as assistant general manager and Philip Seymour Hoffman as players’ manager Art Howe. The film was directed by Bennett Miller with screenplay by Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin.
As the film story unfolds, the Oakland A’s are financially pressed, and turn to a sophisticated statistical approach (i.e., “sabermetrics”) in building their baseball team and how they analyze prospective players. Among some of the off beat players they acquire is a “submarine” pitcher Chad Bradford, played by Casey Bond, and former catcher Scott Hatteberg, played by Chris Pratt. With Beane’s new statistics, and their “undervalued” players and cast-off veterans, the A’s proceed to amaze and astound the baseball world, winning 20 consecutive games, and setting an American League record.The film was released on September 23, 2011 and became a major box-office success, with more than $110 million in revenue as of February 2012. Moneyball was nominated for six Academy Awards including Best Picture, Pitt for best actor, and Jonah Hill for best supporting actor. The film received Top Ten ratings from a dozen or more newspaper and magazine critics in their “best-films-of-2011″ picks. As with The Blind Side, publisher W.W. Norton put out a tie-in paperback version of Moneyball during the film’s run, noting on the cover: “Now a major motion picture starring Brad Pitt.”
Following the success of the films, The Blind Side and Moneyball, Michael Lewis became something of hot commodity in Hollywood. His first book, Liar’s Poker, received renewed interest from Warner Brothers where it had been in development since the early 1990s. But the project picked up momentum in 2011 as Lewis’s star rose and the economic crisis brought Wall Street practices more into public consciousness. As of late September 2011, Lewis was recruited to help write the Liar’s Poker screenplay. Another Lewis book, The Big Short, a 2010 book about the 2008 financial meltdown (see description below), is also being developed for a film at Paramount studios — with Moneyball star Brad Pitt and his film company, Plan B, taking on the project as producer. In fact, Pitt had purchased the film rights to The Big Short even before the book was published. And Disney is reportedly involved in a project related to Coach: Lessons on the Game of Life. Lewis has also scripted film and/or TV material for HBO, Universal, Fox, CBS and TNT. All together, Michael Lewis film adaptations have been nominated for eight Academy Awards. And beyond the films that Lewis’s books have inspired, there is also what some call “the Michael Lewis effect,” which is a kind of “Midas-touch” extending to those characters he highlights in his stories, making them mini-celebrities, or otherwise setting them on a course to wealth and/or fame with their own books, TV appearances, or speaking tours.
More BooksIn early 2010, in between the films The Blind Side and Moneyball, Michael Lewis published his 13th book, The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine. This book focused on Wall Street’s 2008 financial meltdown.
With the repercussions of the market crash then still reverberating throughout the U.S. and the global economy, The Big Short made a well-timed arrival. It was published in March 2010 and spent six weeks at No. 1 on The New York Times nonfiction bestsellers list, remaining on that list for 28 weeks. According to Nielsen BookScan data, during one week in March 2010, Lewis sold 60,000 hardcover copies of The Big Short, followed by 40,000 more then next week.
Michael Lewis set out to tell the story of Wall Street’s collapse from a somewhat different perspective. He would not use the “usual suspects” — i.e., the big banks, investment house CEOs, or federal regulators. Rather, Lewis chose maverick individuals who saw what was coming. These were folks who stood apart from the herd, and by Lewis’s count, there were damn few of them at the time who really understood what was happening. They were the ones who, in some cases, made tons of money on the “smart guys’” failure to understand their own financial wizardry. They saw that the bubble was about to burst, and some of them made enormous sums of money by “shorting” the sub-prime mortgage market in 2005-2008 – i.e., anticipating its drop in value. Everybody else, meanwhile, watched their portfolios evaporate.Among those Lewis follows in The Big Short are: Meredith Whitney, a market analyst who predicted the demise of Citigroup and Bear Stearns; Steve Eisman, a hedge fund manager; Greg Lippmann, a Deutsche Bank trader; and Eugene Xu, a quantitative analyst, and others. Covered as well are some of those who suffered huge losses, such as Howie Hubler, credited with losing $9 billion in one trade, and AIG Financial Products, which suffered over $99 billion in losses.
Lewis also features Dr. Michael Burry in The Big Short. Burry, a thirty-something ex-neurologist suffering from blindness in one eye and Asperger’s syndrome, was also a diligent investor who burrowed into the details of the sub-prime mortgage market. Burry had formerly made a name for himself while a neurology resident at Stanford University posting investment insight and stock picks online during the dot-com stock market boom. His astoundingly accurate picks drew the attention of some well-known investors who invested in him, later spawning his hedge fund, Scion Capital, which made tens of millions for Burry and his investors betting on the sub-prime mortgage collapse.Burry, Lewis, and The Big Short were all featured on a 60 Minutes CBS-TV segment with correspondent Steve Kroft, in March 2010 – a broadcast which helped launch the book into best-seller stardom.
“If you had to pick someone to write the autopsy report on the Wall Street financial collapse 18 months ago,” Kroft explained in the introduction, “you couldn’t do any better than Michael Lewis. He is one of the country’s preeminent non-fiction writers with a knack for turning complicated, mind numbing material into fascinating yarns.
“His new book, called The Big Short…, comes out later this week and it explains how some of Wall Street’s finest minds managed to destroy $1.75 trillion of wealth in the subprime mortgage markets.” Kroft would spend two days with Lewis at his home in Berkeley, California to do the piece for 60 Minutes.
During the 60 Minutes segment, Kroft and Lewis wander about Lewis’s hillside compound in Berkeley, California which consists of a main house and three cottages as the interview takes place. At one point Lewis is asked which book produced the money to buy the home. He replies, “This would’ve been The New, New Thing, that bought this place,” referring to his earlier book on Silicon Valley entrepreneurs.Lewis estimates he has sold “some millions” of books. “I don’t know how many millions. Not John Grisham millions, but millions.” Also in the segment, Lewis estimates as of that time he had sold “some millions” of books. “I don’t know how many millions. Not John Grisham millions,” he told Kroft, “but millions.”
The Big Short received lots of attention beyond 60 Minutes, and the book was generally well received by critics. Two writers touting the book at The Oxonian Review noted: “Michael Lewis has managed to tell the story of the subprime collapse by combining history, finance, and biography into what is surely one of this year’s most entertaining books.” Graydon Carter of Vanity Fair added: “It is the work of our greatest financial journalist, at the top of his game..” And Andrew Leonard of Salon.com also praised The Big Short: “Superb: Michael Lewis doing what he does best, illuminating the idiocy, madness and greed of modern finance. . . . Lewis achieves what I previously imagined impossible: He makes subprime sexy all over again.” The Big Short received the Los Angeles Times Book Award and it also received the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights 2011 Book Award, given annually to a novelist who “most faithfully and forcefully reflects Robert Kennedy’s purposes…” And as noted earlier, The Big Short was optioned for possible film production by Brad Pitt even before its publication.Another Michael Lewis book that became something of companion to The Big Short, was Boomerang: Travels in the New Third World. This book followed the trail of cheap credit that moved around the world between 2002 and 2008, infecting Europe with it’s own economic crisis. Boomerang offers a collection of satirical essays that Lewis had written previously for Vanity Fair as he traveled through Europe. The book prompted New York Times reviewer Michiko Kakutani to observe:
“Michael Lewis possesses the rare storyteller’s ability to make virtually any subject both lucid and compelling. . . . Combining his easy familiarity with finance and the talents of a travel writer, Mr. Lewis sets off in these pages to give the reader a guided tour through some of the disparate places hard hit by the fiscal tsunami of 2008, like Greece, Iceland and Ireland, tracing how very different people for very different reasons gorged on the cheap credit available in the prelude to that disaster….”
The essays in Boomerang did not endear Lewis to European leaders trying to convince the world of their solvency. “Iceland won’t let him go back,” said his old friend, Sean Tuohy, and in Greece, he was persona non grata as well.
Flash Boys’ Fire
Meanwhile, Lewis’ latest book, Flash Boys, will likely continue to stir the pot for a time, moving both politicians and populist sentiment. Observed one Forbes writer, James Poulos in a late March 2014 piece titled “Michael Lewis Is About To Disrupt The Politics Of High Speed Trading”:
…Not only is Lewis about to hit a nerve with America’s most powerful financiers — he’s poised to strike a painful, divisive chord with everyday Americans. High-speed trading epitomizes a whole sequence of contemporary fears about an economy that’s out of control for all but an elite few of players, and sometimes for them, too.
Once we worried that robots would take over planet Earth; now, we’re worried that our algorithms will slip our grasp, whirling away with no master at all…
Flash Boys, meanwhile sold 130,000 copies in the U.S, in its first week of publication. That’s more that twice the rate of The Big Short. And in early April 2014, Sony Pictures was reportedly near a deal on purchasing the film rights for Flash Boys with Scott Rudin and Eli Bush producing. Sony had also produced Moneyball.
“The Lewis Effect”
Two of the “stars” in Michael Lewis’s latest book, Flash Boys, are Ronan Ryan and Brad Katsuyama, noted earlier at the top of this story. In January 2013, before the book idea was hatched, they received a dinner invitation from Michael Lewis. At the time, Lewis was working on a story about a former Goldman Sachs trader who was convicted of stealing computer code and he wanted to talk with Ryan and Katsuyama to get their take on what was happening. Ryan and Katsuyama by then had set up their own trading start-up company, the IEX Group, and were only a few months into the effort. Here’s some of an April 2014 exchange that occurred between Ryan and New York Magazine reporter Kevin Roose on the meeting with Lewis and subsequent events.Q: What was your reaction when Michael Lewis asked if he could interview you?
We were probably 15 people at that time, we’d just raised our first round of funding. And, you know, market structure is not that… interesting to laymen. But as a start-up, if Michael Lewis wants to write about you, I’m guessing 100 out of 100 would say yes to that. So it wasn’t a real discussion.
Q: How much time did he spend with you and Brad?
At the time, we didn’t know we were opening ourselves up to a book. We’d been profiled in the Wall Street Journal, and we really thought this was going to be an article in Vanity Fair. A book is the holy grail!…
Q: Did he give you any warnings? Like, By the way, this is going to be crazy?
It’s been nuts. We’re getting a lot of positive calls.
Q: Who’s been calling? People who want to invest in IEX? Friends from back home?
Q: What’s the most memorable call you’ve gotten so far today?
It’s funny, you have all this excitement with the television, your wives are telling you you’re so great, and your parents are proud of you, and you come here at 6:30 in the morning and some guy from Kentucky…dialed a phone, and left a voice message saying something like that. You’re like, ‘Holy shit, you’re really touching Americans!’ There were chills. We played it over the speaker. I was really amazed.
Source: Kevin Roose, “What It’s Like to Star in a Michael Lewis Book,” New York Magazine, April 1, 2014.
One thing is for sure: Lewis’s latest book has spurred some needed probing on Wall Street, especially of the relationship between technology and markets – fair markets, stable markets, markets that raise capital for productive ends. While all of the points that Lewis has raised in Flash Boys may not be as problematic as he has made them out to be, the issue of runaway technology – and unaccountable pirating of technology for elite gains only – are certainly matters worth investigating, as apparently the Justice Dept., the SEC, and some members of Congress believe they are. As for Lewis the writer, we are lucky to have him around, whatever the subject. Stay tuned to “flash boy Lewis” for more intriguing topics that are surely ahead.
Other stories at this website dealing with Wall Street and/or investing, include: “Wall Street’s Gekko” and “Celebrity Buffett.” Other business-related and business history stories include, for example: “Disney Dollars”, “Empire Newhouse”, “Ted Turner & CNN”, “All Sports, All The Time”, “Murdoch’s NY Deals”, and “Basketball Dollars.” See also the Madison Avenue category page for additional stories on business, advertising, and culture. Thanks for visiting – and please consider supporting this website. Thank you. – Jack Doyle
Date Posted: 19 April 2014
Last Update: 24 April 2014
Comments to: email@example.com
Jack Doyle, “Flash Boy Lewis: 1989-2014”
PopHistoryDig.com, April 19, 2014.
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